Apprenticeships Are Making a Comeback—Here’s Why

UPDATED: April 1, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 28, 2024
Man teaching a female apprentice in a shop

Beyond the trades and more elaborate than internships, apprentices are gaining real work experience.

The term “apprentice” might conjure up images of blacksmiths training young teens in the “olden days,” or maybe former President Donald Trump on the 2004 premiere of the show by the same name. But for some industries, much beyond the trades we all think of as using apprentices, these programs are a path to meaningful and lucrative careers.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports a 6% growth in year-over-year data in 2023, with 641,044 apprenticeship positions at the beginning of 2024. Of course, these might not even include the wide variety of apprenticeships going on in less official capacities, as the term can mean everything from unofficial mentorship, to a full-blown, multi-year position with pay while someone trains in a field. 

The government also reports increases in some industries beyond the trades, such as plumbing, electrical and other common apprentice fields including public administration, educational services, health care, social assistance and others. And it’s not just a post-pandemic or recent trend. According to November 2023 data from ApprenticeshipUSA, apprenticeships have seen a 103% growth from 2014. California leads the states with the most apprenticeships.

The future looks bright for those who engage in these programs, with 92% of apprentices maintaining their employment after the completion of their apprenticeship. In early March, the White House issued an Executive Order on Scaling and Expanding the Use of Registered Apprenticeships in which President Joe Biden states, “It is the policy of my Administration to promote Registered Apprenticeships to meet employer needs while investing in workers’ skills; reducing employment barriers; and promoting job quality, equity, inclusion and accessibility for the benefit of the Federal Government and the Nation.”

What is an apprenticeship?

Like all jobs, the roles and rates for apprenticeships vary considerably. Apprentices are generally those who are new to a field and interested in learning more about the specifics of how to do a certain job within it. Some of these opportunities are official, registered apprenticeships that are part of a program, such as those under the American Apprenticeship Initiative (AAI). 

In their report, they define it as a “Structured program of work-based learning under mentors, providing both value to employers and formal technical instruction to workers, and culminating in an industry-recognized credential that meets standards for registration by a Registration Agency. An apprenticeship sponsor for a specific occupation runs the training program. Sponsors are responsible for registering individual apprentices and determining whether they have successfully completed the apprenticeship program.”

Other less official apprenticeships might simply be an arrangement between a more experienced professional and a newer mentee, with varying degrees of training and payment terms.

Apprentice vs intern: What’s the difference?

There can be confusion about the differences between apprenticeships and internships, and some companies use the terms interchangeably.

“There are some key differences between internships and apprenticeships. In general, an internship is much more exploratory. This type of workplace experience, either paid or unpaid, allows a young person to build skills and have hands-on exposure to the working world at a young age, helping them to understand what they love and hate about the job, and where they see themselves fitting in,” says Jean Eddy, CEO and president of American Student Assistance (ASA), a national nonprofit headquartered in Boston that helps kids learn about careers and prepare for their future. 

Eddy is also the author of Crisis-Proofing Today’s Learners: Reimagining Career Education to Prepare Kids for Tomorrow’s World. “We generally describe an internship as a way for a young person to learn about themselves and acquire basic skills through work,” she says. 

Eddy says apprenticeships allow a young person to learn more in-depth, developing specific skills. “Apprenticeships, which are usually paid opportunities, could take several months or as long as a few years to complete,” she explains. “However, unlike an internship in which there is no guarantee of employment at completion, apprenticeship programs generally lead directly to employment opportunities because of the in-depth knowledge and workplace skills acquired.”

An internship is great for someone who isn’t sure exactly what they want to do, she adds, while an apprenticeship might be a better route for those who know what they want but need the technical training.  

Apprenticeships are a must-have in some fields

For some industries, apprenticeships aren’t just optional, but rather necessary training to begin work. Kaustubh Deo, president and owner-operator of Blooma Tree Experts in Seattle, for example, says, “We do not hire folks into a tree climbing position unless they have gone through a groundwork training process at our company or another company,” he says. They usually need two to three years learning from the ground before they start climbing trees. 

“The primary benefit of this style of working apprenticeship is you’re getting paid to learn. Don’t get me wrong, working on the ground is a tough, physical job, but you’re still working a good, steady job while picking up new skills that can meaningfully change your earnings potential in the long term,” Deo says. 

“The downside is that it takes real time, grit and effort to get through that and develop the skills to become a safe tree climber,” he explains. “In fact, some folks never really get to that stage because once they actually try climbing 80 to 100 feet into a Douglas fir, they realize it’s not for them.” In this way, apprenticeships can help someone determine if the specific job they’d been pursuing will be a long-term fit for their skill set.

“Get back up” with some guidance—the value of a real-time teacher

In Ludlow, Kentucky, a brewery meets a circus-based performance theater in a unique combination at Bircus, owned by Paul Miller, former clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Apprentices are essential in the circus field, he says. He’s in the process of registering his apprenticeship program with the government, to gain an “official” status.

The field can be highly competitive. Miller applied for clown college and didn’t make it; he applied a second time, along with 3,000 others. He estimates that 30 people make it, and 10 would get a contract as an apprentice clown. 

He is passing the torch by leading apprentices at his facility, where he even offers housing in a local apartment. A customer, Rachel, approached him about trying a fiery “flow artist” act on his stage, and he was game. “I have this big theater; it’s all concrete. I said ‘let’s do it outside and make sure you don’t set yourself on fire,’ but then it was hilarious,” he recalls. She became a bartender at the theater and continued to learn from other mentees, evolving her act into a trapeze performance. Her “moxie” or “service mojo” as Miller puts it, is exactly the confidence an apprentice needs to make it in his field.

Miller recalls an embarrassing moment when Rachel fell on the trapeze under his guidance and learned that the show must go on. “This is what’s so great about a real apprenticeship—in my industry, you are going to fall, and it is embarrassing, but get your butt back up on that trapeze and finish the act!” He says the “real-time” education is a must. 

He’s sought out kids in the juvenile justice system and trained them as his apprentices as well, proving that all it takes is training with the right teacher.

Using an apprenticeship to fill in skill gaps

Caroline Lidz, a recent Northeastern University graduate living in Boston, is an account apprentice at Fight or Flight, a global creative B2B communications agency. “Topics like how to write a press release or writing for social media content were absent from my education. As I entered the post-grad job market, I was aware that I had some skill gaps that I wanted filled in before committing myself to a full-time role,” she says.

Her internship has given her “a wealth of firsts,” such as developing social videos for the San Francisco 49ers. She says doing an apprenticeship is a way for pandemic-era college students who may have missed out on opportunities to fill in the gaps. “I have the time and resources available to experiment and learn without the pressure of a full-time role,” she explains.

Benefits of apprenticeships: ROI for employers

Lidz knows her apprenticeship isn’t just benefitting her, it also benefits her employers. “Employers can facilitate these conversations with business goals in mind and develop training programs responsive to the company’s current needs,” she says.

In the AAI report on ROI, research showed that the median employer experienced a near $18,000 gain from apprenticeships. Of the 68 employers surveyed, 68% achieved a positive net return over five years. They also report 60% of employers recouped at least 80% of their costs and 40% recouped their full costs.

Andrew Pickett, trial attorney and founder at Andrew Pickett Law in Melbourne, Florida, says apprenticeship programs have become “crucial” for professional development. He also says apprenticeships have “revolutionized my firm’s operations by creating a collaborative environment and promoting continuous learning.”

In fields such as electrical industries, apprenticeships even lead to four-year training certificates at no cost to apprentices, according to Mike Greenawalt, CEO Emeritus at Rosendin, an electrical contracting company headquartered in San Jose, California. This can create a sense of loyalty to an employer as well. “In most cases, the employers are paying for the apprentice’s education, so apprenticeships really value employers,” he says. “The employers pay the apprentice’s wages for their on-the-job training, and employers fund the classrooms, too, including teacher salaries and the brick-and-mortar cost.”

So, while employers are investing in the younger generations in their industry, they can rest assured that it’s likely mutually beneficial financially and a moral benefit to all.

Photo by Monkey Business Images/